Alfonso Cuarón’s biographical masterpiece, Roma, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Picture, and Best Director. I can relate to Roma’s painfully accurate portrayal of a family breaking apart in the 1970s. It’s what happened to mine and what made it the most difficult film I’ve ever sat through.
My alarm bells began ringing from the very beginning of the film centering on arguably its most symbolic character: The family’s German Shepherd who no one walks or picks up after.
In 1964, when I was two, my parents brought home a German Shepherd puppy. Because I couldn’t pronounce the word ‘little’ yet, I referred to her as the “Nitti dog.” And so she was named. Nitti went everywhere I went. To the creek and lake adjacent to our house, up and down our cul de sac — unleashed.
Recently, a childhood friend reminded me of a time when we were roughly five years old and playing outdoors with Nitti. She recalled how a neighbor yelled at me for not picking up Nitti’s poop in her front yard. My friend remembers that despite my tender age, I told the woman to sod off. I have no recollection of the incident but judging by my reaction — flushed, and prickly skinned — to hearing my friend’s account, I don’t doubt its veracity. To this day, I feel shame about not picking up after Nitti. If you’ve ever had a big dog you know how big Nitti’s poops were. And if you’ve ever been five years old, you know how small my hands were. Mind you these were the days before biodegradable doggy bags when we used newspaper or paper napkins to pick up after our dogs. Anyway, I didn’t like picking up after Nitti, for obvious reasons, nor did my two older brothers, or my parents.
Dog shit is the filigree that holds together my earliest childhood memories, and, as is evident now but wasn’t then, stands for the dysfunction that engulfed and ultimately destroyed my family.
Second, the family in Roma, like mine, is wealthy and employs a housekeeper, Cleo, played by Oscar-nominated Yalitza Aparicio. We cycled through several live-ins when I was young, but the one I have the most vivid memory of was Marie whom my mother — a white savior if ever there was one — literally brought back with her from a vacation to Haiti. The reason I remember Marie better than the others is because when my parents went out and left us in her care, Marie would take off my bottoms and fondle my genitalia. Cleo is not Marie. Cleo is benevolent. However, my reaction to Cleo has less to do with her moral character than with the regrettable tendency of wealthy families to let others care for and raise their children. Oh sure, my mom was there for all my school plays and piano recitals, but based on the accounts of relatives, she rarely deigned to change many diapers or cradle me when I was running a high fever. Those were Marie’s jobs.
Third, the mother, Sofia, portrayed by another Oscar nominee, Marina de Tavira, is so enveloped by her husband abandoning the family, that she temporarily all but forgets about her children, leaving her mother and Cleo to maintain normalcy while she picks up the pieces of her shattered life.
In 1969, my dad, dressed for work, carrying a garment bag in one hand and a shoe buffer in the other, found me coloring in my room and unceremoniously announced, “I’m leaving.” When I asked when he’d be back, he delivered shocking news: “I’m not coming back, sweetheart.” The moment marks the beginning of what was the worst period of my young life.
My mom, enraged, began drinking heavily. And my brother, Steven, began to sexually molest me: no one noticed.
The scene in which Sofia slaps her son Paco for eavesdropping on her was another trigger. Sofia immediately apologizes but begs Paco not to tell anyone what she’s done. As I watched this scene I was reminded of the time I told my mother my biggest secret, that her son, my brother, forced me to give him blowjobs on a regular basis. She held me while I cried and the truth spilled out, but then put her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye — just as Sofia does with Paco — and said the words I’ve never forgiven her for, “Let’s just keep this our little secret. Okay?” Just like Paco, I dutifully nodded my head yes.
Who could not have been on the edge of their seat — if not triggered — by the scene at the beach when Sofia leaves Cleo to tend to the children while she leaves for a moment. Naturally, the children wander too far out in the water, and Cleo, despite not knowing how to swim, heroically rescues them and brings them back to the shore.
Did I mention that I lived next to a large lake when I was a child? I spent a great deal of time there but have no memory of an adult ever accompanying me to the lake. My older brothers and the other neighborhood kids, yes. Adults. No. What was it with the parents in those days? Or is it the parents these days that something’s wrong with? Were parents too self-absorbed to be cautious or are parents today cautious to a fault denying their children the types of memories I have of cutting open bluegills with a pocket knife, and catching-and-releasing the box turtles that hid among the swampy cattails. In any case, today there’s an ugly chain link fence around that lake. I wonder if an unsupervised child who drowned is what put it there.
Sixth there’s the dad, Antonio, played by Fernando Grediaga. He is a doctor in the midst of a mid-life crisis during the turbulent and anything-goes early 70s. Which is to say he has his head up his ass.
Antonio is continually leaving for work trips, as was my dad in the early 70s. I forgave dad easily because he brought me expensive dolls from foreign lands. Once he even came home with an entire box of Bazooka Bubble Gum for each of us kids, and a bouquet of roses for my mom. I did not understand then what my mom and older brothers probably knew, which was that dad was apologizing for some unspoken transgression. I just remember thinking what an awesome dad he was for giving me a whole box of my favorite bubble gum, comicstrips and all!
After my parents separated, my dad would drive to the suburbs from downtown — where he’d rented a penthouse apartment — and pick us up every Sunday morning. I’d wake early those days, dress for the city, and wait on the living room sofa for the sound of his Lincoln Mark IV to pull into our cul de sac. Dad allowed me to sit up front with him. “No more calling shotgun,” he told my brothers. “Shotgun belongs to Amy.”
One Sunday, I looked over the back of the sofa through the bay window to confirm dad’s arrival only to spot another woman with him…riding shotgun. I shouted out to mom. “There’s someone with daddy!”
Mom rushed outside and down the front walkway as I nervously watched from my perch at the window. Dad got out of the car and intercepted mom before she could reach the curb. Mom and dad’s faces were as close as two faces could get without touching, their jaws and lips moving all at once. Suddenly, dad broke away from the argument and stormed through the front door angrily calling my name, “Amy Elizabeth!” Just then, I heard mom come in through the basement door of our split level home, and I went running through the entryway and headed for the steps leading downstairs.
Dad reached out and grabbed my right hand at the same time as I grasped mom’s extended hand. I became a human rope in their tug of war.
Though something else must have happened in between, what I remember next is my screaming while dad pushed the top of my head down forcing me into the back seat of his car. I was introduced to the woman in the front seat, Michaelann, who I’d later learn was a Playboy model. I still remember the earthy-sweet scent of patchouli in the car. A scent that stuck to me like my mom’s words, “your dad never wanted you kids” stuck to me. Like the Bazooka Bubble Gum I pressed into the grout of the stone hearth stuck. And no matter how much mom tried to scrape and dig the gum from the grooves, there was always a pinkish tint to that section of grout.